Nacho Libre is the second comedy from husband-and-wife filmmaking team Jared and Jerusha Hess, whose debut Napoleon Dynamite somehow became a huge hit two years ago.
I use the word “somehow” because as funny as that cult film was in spots, its creators showed themselves to be not very good filmmakers. The Hesses squeezed laughs out of abrupt shifts in tone or language and director Jared’s sense of timing, but their script had no structure, their characters were zero-dimensional, and their slapstick was mostly uninspired. I bring all this up because these same defects are on display in Nacho Libre, and despite the Hesses having lined up some big-league talent on their side, their second film finds the laughs considerably harder to come by.
Jack Black stars as Ignacio, a friar who works as a cook in the Oaxaca orphanage where he grew up. The man of God has always harbored a secret desire to become a lucha libre wrestler, and when the local ring announces that they’re looking for new talent, Ignacio and a scrawny street kid named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez) decide to don masks and fight for glory.
Reportedly the Hesses originally intended to make a parody of Mexican wrestling and then changed their minds when they realized how seriously the sport is taken by its fans. The shift in perspective doesn’t come off. We never understand what attracts Ignacio to lucha libre, and while it isn’t exactly the filmmakers’ style to give the character a speech about why he loves the sport, they never capture what makes the sport exhilarating or fascinating to its devoted followers, despite spending considerable time in the ring.
Black’s a poor fit for the main character as well. He looks right in the costumes (or rather, he looks wrong in the right way, as most real-life luchadores are lithe and muscular as opposed to the behemoths in American wrestling), and he works all sorts of tics with his eyebrows and weird line readings, but he never locates what drives Ignacio to become the wrestler Nacho. He only finds his footing late in the film, when Ignacio writes a love song to Sister Encarnación (Ana de la Reguera, with the facial features of a ceramic Virgin Mary statue and a knowing wink in her eye), a nun who has come to work at his orphanage. This song and the one over the end credits are vintage Black, with their demented lyrics.
Instances like these, however, are the exception rather than the rule. You can see the Hesses trying to riff on the familiar athlete-in-training montage when Nacho and Esqueleto work out with melons, beehives, and archery equipment, but this sequence, like so many others here, lands on “odd” rather than “funny.” The scenes with Nacho seeking advice from a guru and wandering in the wilderness aren’t over the top the way they should be. The movie is carried out in a clipped, deadpan style that we’ve come to expect from these filmmakers, yet it feels effortful, like the Hesses are trying to extract laughs through willpower rather than invention. Maybe that’s why this Nacho seems stale.
Starring Jack Black, Héctor Jiménez, and Ana de la Reguera. Directed by Jared Hess. Written by Jared Hess, Jerusha Hess, and Mike White. Rated PG.